A Cleantech Energy Funding Adventure

by Jason Barkeloo, CEO of Pilus Energy

My business partners and I discovered an innovative way to unlock energy stored in carbon compounds. After a little back-slapping and “atta-boys,” we sought to raise the capital to launch a pilot. This led to another discovery; the destructive impact the economic crisis is having upon the capital markets. This means innovation, which requires capital, does not have the fast movement opportunity to market that capital provides.

It is a long way from the days when a business plan with a dot com name could attract large amounts of capital. Many funders are accustomed to the software funding model. It is very different from funding a cleantech energy company. Cleantech energy producing firms may have software, but they may also have hardware, which requires manufacturing. Most funders do not like manufacturing. They prefer software. The funding requirements for energy production are substantially different because they require more time and capital. More time means the return on investment (ROI) will take longer. Consequently, their capital will be tied up longer. More time and capital mean more risk. Investors seek to reduce or avoid risk.

Cleantech innovations for distributed production remind me of the evolution from centralized servers and node computing models to the distributed Internet. As personal computer functionality increased, the computing power of the server was distributed to the edge of the network. Similarly, energy production will distribute as new innovative technologies develop. This is an opportunity for investors. If you did not recognize the transition from centralized computing to distributed computing, this is the opportunity to realize the distribution of energy production.

Before we get to a distributed-centric model, we will have a hybrid model. This will be an intermediate position before distributed becomes the norm.

Funding Structure Changes: The Vacuum
Generally speaking, Limited Partners (LPs) are significantly disappointed with the returns their venture capitalist (VC) money managers have provided. As a result, less capital is flowing into VCs. The vacancies along Sand Hill Lane in Menlo Park, CA attest to this. The seeming capital availability growth in China also provides insight into the changing VC landscape in America.

The population of VCs that remain is smaller. As one of my entrepreneurial colleagues told me last week, “It is one thing to kiss a lot of frogs to find a funding prince, but it’s a whole lot harder finding them when they are vanishing.” It struck me that amphibians in the natural world are also becoming extinct. Now, before we try to get VCs on the Endangered Species list, it is important to mention that their industry is evolving. In the interim though, there is a vacuum.

Our firm attracted enough pre-Seed funding to find and protect an important discovery. The amount of pre-Seed funding we needed for our cleantech discovery was significantly more than a friends-and-family round a software firm would raise. However, when our Company scales, our visionary investors will be rewarded handsomely, as well they should be.

The Company’s next milestone is revenues from a pilot. We must do this with our breakthrough technology as a minimum viable product. We will need more funding than most traditional angels will risk. If we could find a VC that would partner with a pre-revenue cleantech energy producing firm, the amount needed would be too low. As we are pre-revenue, going straight to a Series A with a VC is about as probable as getting Republicans and Democrats to [fill in the blank].

The funny thing is, governments are starting to fill the due diligence and risk reduction activities that angels need. No experienced angel is going to make a significant investment if there is no VC to fund the next level of a Company’s growth. Therefore, angels are starting to look to government for the nod and wink as to who are the winners and losers. I do not make a habit of saying things about an endorser’s expertise to conduct endorsement activities. Suffice it for me, if an angel is comfortable, then I am comfortable.

As part of the evolution of the capital landscape, I see an enhanced role for corporate joint ventures (JV). This may require a bit more “corporate” flexibility of the entrepreneur than s/he is accustomed. However, the corporation likely has resources and expertise than can assist the company’s growth. Of course the corporation gets the first right of refusal for licensing, product distribution, marketing, sales, and even liquidity. Since I am presently in such discussions it is best to shut my thoughts (aka, my mouth).

Back to the governmental funding role for a moment. Tax-payer funded programs like the small business innovative research program (SBIR), and similar programs, can be a very slow road to growth. We are fortunate. Our research team is well versed in grant writing. Surviving in academia requires the ability to pursue and manage grants. We were luckier still to get a top-notch writer who can do science, technical writing, and journal authorship. As a grant-writing company we accept, begrudgingly, that our deployment timeline is painfully lengthened by this funding strategy. We estimate an added twelve to eighteen months over angel funding to get a pilot completed. Speed is critical to capture markets. Hopefully, our competitors are experiencing the same slog.

The other downside is that grant requests for proposals (RFPs) serve as the starting point for grants. Those RFPs are usually not issued for breakthrough technologies. It is a breakthrough because no one else thought of it; hence no RFPs are issued in advance. Being ahead with innovation can slow down the startup even further. Securing a grant for an innovation will require political help expanding unsolicited RFP Programs and reducing the timelines.

The danger with this phase of capital market evolution is the vacuum left by vanishing VCs and angels who feed deals to VCs. Filling the vacuum requires time and experience. The time lost filling the vacuum results in less innovation to help grow the economy. Innovation keeps our economy healthy (or regain its health). Innovation begins with education and free markets. Funding innovation should not have government competing against the market. Perhaps government can participate in the innovation market?

As it turns out, the government is already participating in the market. Starting with innovation incubators like the Department of Defense (DoD) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its two year old Department of Energy (DoE) twin, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), to development stage programs like SBIR, to its own VCs like In-Q-Tel. What is needed now is to reduce the timelines for awards. Providing ROI mechanisms for tax payers beyond the promise of jobs may help streamline the process.

Additionally, government can encourage large firms sitting on capital to invest in startup innovations. Startup entrepreneurs can also encourage corporations to invest.

Conclusion
The longer it takes to fill the funding vacuum, the further American innovation will lag. Capital does not respect human borders. It will flow where it can grow. Entrepreneurs have a responsibility to their investors to follow the money. Therefore, innovation will follow the money too.

America is at risk of losing its cleantech innovation advantage. While America waits for the void of innovation funders to be filled, other countries are moving forward. American Federal and State governments might consider fast-tracking their cleantech funding programs. The United States Patent Office (USPTO) offers a fast-track cleantech energy patenting process. However, most of us understand the dangers associated with a fast-tracked patent when it comes to defending it, particularly for re-examination. However, the USPTO is commended for taking a leadership role in trying to maintain the innovation pipeline. The thinking is that a company with an issued patent is more fundable than one without.

Lastly, the American governments might also encourage established firms to take risks with innovative startups. If existing corporations can fill the funding vacuum, innovations might come to market more quickly. Such a strategy might also rapidly increase American economic health. How do you think Federal and State governments can incentivize cash-rich corporations to take investment partnership risks with startups?

2 replies
  1. @greenmacgal
    @greenmacgal says:

    Right on! I've shared all of the same advice with client companies, tweeted on this information and answered several questions on LinkedIn regarding funding for pre-revenue clean tech companies. I've shared stories from the "inside" as you, and as an investor have given advice to numerous start-ups. The U.S. is rich with resources. It's not lack of innovation that I see but a lack of "wanting" to do the hard work and looking for the "quick" money. I've funded companies with unsolicited grants, RFP, angel, VC and JV. It takes work and time. It takes a team effort of individuals with the right experience. It takes a lot of networking. Thanks for posting this information and best wishes Jason in your search for capital.

  2. Muir Woods
    Muir Woods says:

    Jason,

    The world has indeed changed, and as you've discovered the hard way, the Angel>VC>IPO innovation funding model that we know and love is currently, and possibly permanently broken in the US. Best case, the "interim vacuum" is going to be a long one.

    Truth be told, and despite all the hype to the contrary, this funding model never really worked all that well in Cleantech and probably never will. As you point out, Cleantech requires manufacturing (lots of it) and it's been quite a while since our VCs liked companies that make things (or had a clue how to manage them). I happen to think that the year-to-year drop in VC returns over the last decade or more is tied to this, but what do I know? I'm a manufacturing guy.

    Also, I don't mean to belittle innovation, but Cleantech is about scale, the massive deployment of proven, durable technologies and that takes a different kind of capital and development than the VC model is designed to service. Your comment about corporate funding is a good one, but to ride that bus we will have to abandon the "retire a millionaire model" that we've been addicted to for so long. And look for corporate sponsors that aren't attached to the "quarterly earnings" model that dominates thinking in America.

    And given the current political climate in Washington, it's going to be a while before they pay more than lip service and offer token innovation grants in the sector. I don't expect much to happen until Chesapeake Bay is lapping at the base of the steps to the Capitol, but a Republican friend recently put it rather more graphically: "When the rabble set up guillotines on the Washington Mall".

    It's probably time to take Horace Greely's famous advice, "Go West young man" and combine it with Clyde Barrow's answer to why he robbed banks, "Because that's where the money is".

    How far West? Can you spell 中國 ?

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